Jennifer climbs out of the Porsche Cayenne, teetering slightly in cheap bubblegum pink patent stilettos. She snaps her chewing gum loudly, pulls up her grey skinny jeans in order to avoid exposing an unsightly bum crack and flicks her long, blonde hair over her shoulder. Readjusting her gaudy silver boob tube, she looks back at the other two who are still fiddling around with their sheilas, a nauseous look on her face.
"Don't worry, everything's perfect," Moza assures her, following her out of the car, looking ridiculous even for Dubai standards in her huge Chanel sunglasses... at nine in the evening. Lady Luxe is next, her face completely covered in an opaque niqab, with only her eyes peeking through the slits in the cloth. Handing over the car to the valet outside the imposing yet rather comical hotel, she joins her cousin in walking up to the entrance, taking a second to look up at the huge salmon pink building, wondering what the architect was smoking when he conceived the idea. She hasn't been there since the grand opening party as quite frankly, she wasn't impressed by the weird, colourful structures and the shoddy finishing. It is the last place anyone she knows would expect her to grace, and therefore absolutely perfect for tonight's rendezvous.
"As fine as a chav can look, you mean?" Jennifer - also known as Rowdha - jokes, blowing a big bubble with her gum, trying to soothe her static nerves.
"Darling, you'd put any Sharon or Tracy to shame," Moza says in an over-exaggerated poncy accent, following her sister into the hotel. "Now, just remember, we'll be right there the whole time. We'll give you around 15 minutes with him before Exhibit A, we'll send over Exhibit B ten minutes after that, and then the final showdown will happen when you give us the go ahead."
"And remember that he doesn't know a single thing about Jennifer other than the fact that she's Emirati, she dances like Pussycat Doll and she drives a black Cayenne," Lady Luxe adds, excitement rippling through her veins. The afternoon's drama, combined with the knots of anxiety in her stomach and countless sleepless nights, has suddenly caused an unexpected reaction within. Adrenaline has replaced the tension, and she feels sharp, strong and in control - much like her previous scheming self. She is tired of feeling weak, tired of being intimidated and tired of feeling used. Okay, so she can't do much about Mola at present - but she can do something about that sneaky little bastard Humaid. He isn't the only one with contacts at Etisalat, nor is he the only one with wasta. In fact, she is far higher up in the food chain and tonight, he would learn the hard way that no one messes with Lady Luxe - especially not a horny, pubescent Emirati with far too much money and not enough class.
"Got it," Rowdha says. "So I can basically say or do whatever I want. Yalla, I'm ready for this. I'm going down... see you later." She suppresses the urge to leg it back to the car and walks away, her long, blonde wig swishing behind her and her heels clattering on the pink marble floors.
Moza and Lady Luxe sink down on a bench by the colourful statue of a sea amoeba and say nothing for a moment, absorbed in their thoughts.
"Do you think this is going to work?" Lady Luxe finally asks, breaking the peaceful silence. Although she is no longer riddled with fear of having her entire life exposed, she is still on edge. She is relying on Plan B to solve the Humaid issue once and for all, and if it does work, then she can go back to concentrating on bringing Leila down – something she has been dying to do ever since the annoying, gold digging cow hoisted herself onto a throne.
"Actually," Moza replies slowly, "I do. It's obvious what kind of guy Humaid is. He's two-faced and shallow like the rest of them. By the time we're through with him, he'll never show his face in Za'abeel again."
"Ameen to that," Lady Luxe hails, standing up and stumbling slightly, unable to see properly through the tiny gap in the cloth. How women cover their faces on a daily basis to hide their beauty is beyond her comprehension. Already she feels as though she is being smothered. Besides, hiding a face like hers from the public would be a great pity, she decides. She simply cannot imagine being so completely anonymous, or not having men constantly admire her. Nor can she imagine a world where she is a nobody.
"You should have just worn sunglasses like me," Moza says, looking far more graceful as she stands up. "They'll be easier to take off later as well."
"I'd rather be a clumsy munaqqaba than a refined fashion victim," her cousin retorts, making her way down the long hallway and concentrating on watching where she is going. She realises that in niqab, she cannot simply look down with her eyes – doing so results in her vision being obscured by cloth and she actually has to move her entire head to see her feet. They walk slowly for a couple of metres before Moza stops in her tracks, causing her cousin to bump into her.
"Watch it," Lady Luxe complains. "I can't see properly as it is."
"Look, there they are!" Moza whispers urgently, pulling Lady Luxe behind a glittery gold column. "In the lounge. Look!"
Lady Luxe peers around the column and sees Rowdha sitting on the far end of the glitzy room, facing the entrance. Humaid is sitting opposite her, dressed in the very same outfit as that afternoon. Bastard, Lady Luxe thinks again with hatred.
"So what shall we do?" she whispers, unable to tear her eyes away from the pair, desperately trying to read Rowdha's impassive facial expressions. "Hide here until it's time?"
"Well we can't exactly go in there like this," Moza replies, also trying to see what is happening between her sister and the two-faced twit. "…we'll stand out like prossies in a mosque. Let's just wait here."
"Okay, let me send some text messages," Lady Luxe murmurs, forcing her eyes to look away, her heart pounding in anticipation. "Almost time for Exhibit A."
* * *
Rowdha sits next to Humaid feeling more uncomfortable than she does at her quarterly smear tests. As much as she enjoys talent spotting and the occasional flirting, this is the first time in five years that she has left her home in something so revealing – not to mention tacky. With her post-baby figure, it isn't exactly flattering either. Even back in her slightly wilder days, her antics were always conducted in Western countries - never, ever in Dubai. She has never understood how her cousin could easily plonk a wig on her head and then mess around practically in her own back garden. That girl had far too much courage. If she had been more sensible in her choice of venue – and, of course, friends - they wouldn't have been in this precarious situation.
Her throat dry and her palms clammy, she fidgets in her seat, pulling up her top to reveal less of a plunging, mother-of-two cleavage and tries not to make her awkwardness so obvious.
This is also her first (and last, she swears) 'date' whilst being married - something she never dreamt she would do. Although her presence is not voluntary, and nor is it really a date, she can't help but feel as if she is doing something terribly wrong. She tries to tell herself that she isn't cheating, but sitting there at the Atlantis with another man who is trying to let his knee touch hers, she gets the feeling that her husband wouldn't agree.
"You look a little different today," Humaid notes, his eyes flickering over Rowdha's thicker eyebrows, her bigger mouth, her rounder face.
No kidding, Sherlock, she thinks to herself, suppressing a yawn and trying to follow the bimbo slut brief she has been given.
"Really? Well, you did see me in the dark," she giggles, chewing her gum loudly. "But then, most guys do see me in the dark. I hardly ever go out with guys during the day. I don't look very pretty in natural light." She says this with such nonchalance that Humaid actually believes the statement to be true. Weird, definitely, but true all the same.
"Is that so?" Humaid leans forwards, unashamedly trying to look down her top. "You look fine to me."
He is a little too close for comfort, close enough for Rowdha to smell his spicy oud and she moves back as much as she can, another wave of guilt rippling through her. Please God, forgive me for this, she pleads, taking a sip of her tea.
"So how come you've taken so long to get back to me?" he asks, his gaze still fixated on her chest. Rowdha shrinks further into herself, feeling completely naked. How women walk around wearing next to nothing is beyond her. She makes a mental note to ask her promiscuous cousin how she brings herself to wear such skimpy clothing – assuming she gets out of this mess relatively unscathed, that is.
"You know how it is. So many guys, so little time," she laughs, discreetly wiping her palms on her jeans. "I mean, all of last week, I had to like, you know, go out with this Saudi guy who pays for all my plastic surgery. And then the week before there was this American guy who took up all my time. This is like, literally the first free night I've had in a long time."
"Oh." For once, Humaid is speechless. Is she a prostitute, he wonders, partly intrigued, partly repulsed.
"Are you a -" he begins, his voice rising in indignant excitement.
"No!" Rowdha laughs, slapping her thighs. "Well, not literally. I don't charge for sex but I do accept gifts, if you know what I mean." She winks at him, and he feels his tea rise up his oesophagus. What happened to the classy girl from the club? After all that time he waited for her to finally yield to his pursuit, he was expecting a woman with a little more decorum. But then, what did he expect from a club-whore whose best friend liked to bestow 'favours' on innocent men in dark alleys?
As they continue to talk, Rowdha dropping more and more references to previous 'boyfriends', Humaid starts to wonder if this is all a big joke, if Jennifer is actually trying to put him off. Surely no woman – prostitute or otherwise – would behave with such indignity in public unless she had an ulterior motive.
"Leila told me you're Emirati," he states, narrowing his eyes and looking at her face for a change. The accusation comes like a drawn gauntlet and Rowdha wonders whether to admit she is, or to lie a little more.
"Oh Lord no!" Rowdha exclaims, choosing the latter and guffawing loudly.
"That's what she said," he protests in defiance, scowling.
"That's what she thinks," Rowdha replies conspiringly. "Actually, to be honest, my father is Emirati. My mother is Indian. She was his housemaid."
"Your mother was a housemaid?"
"Yes, but it was a very long time ago. We actually have a history of maids in the family. My grandmother and great-grandmother were both maids back in India."
"You're half Indian?"
Humaid leans back in this seat, clearly exhausted by the conversation, finally beginning to realise that Jennifer isn't worth his time at all. However, after all those days he spent fantasising about her, along with the pent-up sexual energy following the meeting with his future wife, he wonders whether to just screw her and leave her anyway. She is practically a prostitute anyway and probably won't be too difficult to lure into his car. But there is no way he will actually pay for her services – with money or gifts. No, after wasting his thoughts and his time, she owes him this. And he always makes sure that his rights are fulfilled.
Rowdha is also shattered. The story-telling was a little fun after she got over her initial sense of guilt, but now, it is just plain tiring. She hasn't told so many stories since her children were small, demanding bedtime tales before going to sleep, and even that was a chore. She is hoping however, that the plan is working and Humaid is too disgusted with Jennifer to pursue her further.
"Jennifer! Darling! How are you?" Rowdha looks up to see a small, Filipino man with high cheekbones and short, spiky hair stride over to her. He is wearing a bright pink shirt and tight jeans, and as he comes closer, she notices that the tips of his hair are ice-blonde.
"Jose!" she squeals, jumping up from her seat and throwing her arms around him. "Oh my God, it's been SO long!" She beams at him and playfully ruffles his hair.
"Who's this?" Humaid asks sharply, a little put out by the interruption. He was just about to begin enticing Jennifer to accept a ride. Home, that is.
"Humaid, meet my old friend Jose," Rowdha gushes, still grinning. Despite meeting Jose for the very first time, she is thrilled to see him and thankful for the interruption. "Jose, this is Humaid. My boyfriend."
Humaid almost chokes on his drink.
"Nice to meet you," he splutters, too shocked at Rowdha's statement to be insulted by the presence of a khaneeth.
"Jose, you have to join us," Rowdha declares, pulling his slender arm and forcing him into the seat beside her.
"Oh, I don’t know," Jose says, smiling a bright, toothy smile and covering his baby face with his hands. "I don’t want to impose…."
"You're not imposing, you have to stay for a bit."
"Okay, if you absolutely insist," Jose huffs, sitting down and putting his arm around Rowdha's shoulders. "So tell me darling, how are you? As in, how are you really?"
"I'm fine," Rowdha says, imploring him with her eyes to be quiet.
"You're such a strong little thing," he continues with raw emotion, pulling a silk handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbing the corner of his right eye delicately.
"It was just a cold," Rowdha says through clenched teeth, pretending to be annoyed. She kicks Jose under the table, accidentally-on-purpose kicking Humaid instead.
"Ouch!" Humaid exclaims, bending down to rub his sore ankle. "What the hell was that for?"
"Sorry, my foot must have slipped," Rowdha says quickly, throwing Jose a quick warning look, one that does not go amiss by the increasingly suspicious Humaid. "Anyway Jose, don’t you have somewhere you have to be?" she says, all the warmth in her voice gone as she stares daggers at him.
"Right. Yes. I better go. Hope your…..'cold' goes away soon."
Humaid stares at Jose's retreating back in confusion. Although he is not the sharpest knife in the kitchen, he is perceptive enough to realise that there is something going on – something he is not supposed to know. Jennifer is obviously sick, but is trying to hide it from him. He rubs his swollen ankle again, befuddlement written all over his otherwise attractive face.
"What's wrong with you?" he asks, out of curiosity more than genuine concern.
"Nothing!" Rowdha snaps, folding her arms and looking away.
They sit in stony silence for a while, Humaid trying to understand exactly what was going on while Rowdha suppresses the smile that is aching to form on her scowling lips. The tension is thick enough to slice, and Rowdha is enjoying his obvious discomfort.
She opens her mouth to begin talking, but before she can, there is a sudden movement in the lounge, and she looks up to see a vaguely attractive girl in a plain black abaya descend upon her table.
"Can I help you?" Rowdha asks politely.
"Galeelat al sharaf," the girl hisses in Arabic, hatred clouding her dark eyes.
Man, this girl is good, Rowdha thinks to herself, looking forward to seeing what would happen next. "What's your problem? Do I know you?"
"What's going on?" Humaid intervenes weakly, his head beginning to pound. All he wanted was to spend time with the sexy, fiery little thing from the club, but the girl who snatched his hat and danced with him was so different from the one who now sat opposite him. This girl wasn't fiery, she was rude. She wasn't sexy, she was annoying. And she definitely wasn't a little thing. In fact, she seemed to be a lot older than he expected. He sighs, wishing he hadn't wasted so much time on her, but reluctant to let her go completely without getting anything in return.
"You might not know me, but you certainly know my husband don't you?" The girl spits, bringing her face so close to Rowdha's that she can smell her cigarette breath. "Don’t try and deny it. I recognise you from the picture he has, you cheap whore."
"I don’t know what you're talking about," Rowdha says defiantly, glancing over at Humaid who is looking shocked all over again.
"Don't fucking lie to me!" The girl screams in English. The other guests in the lounge turn around to stare, but the girl either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. "Don’t fucking insult me anymore! You gave him herpes you dirty bitch! And now I have them too!"
There is a stunned silence while the other guests stare in open-mouthed horror. Rowdha says nothing, her face turning red. The girl is so convincing that she almost feels as if she actually does have the disease. Humaid's face turns greens.
"I hope you rot in hell," the local girl chokes out, her eyes wild with fury. She turns to leave, and then stops mid-movement. Hesitating slightly, she turns to spit on Rowdha's lap before striding away, leaving behind an atmosphere of disgust and embarrassment.
Rowdha doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. The girl was amazing but here she is, sitting with a stupid jerk, wearing dodgy clothes, saliva decorating her lap while the entire lounge ogles her as if she is one of those ugly monkeys with their bums hanging out in Al Ain Zoo.
"What the hell," Humaid mutters, his hands shaking. "You have herpes?"
"Yes," Rowdha says in a quiet voice, looking down. "I don’t know how I got it or where it came from. That's why I didn’t want to meet you. I didn’t want you to get it. It's so painful and so sore. I have blisters all over my –"
"Okay! I get it!" Humaid interrupts, bile rising to the back of this throat. To think he almost…
"I'm so upset!" Rowdha chokes, her voice beginning to wobble. "I don’t know what to do!" Before Humaid can respond, she gets up and plants herself on his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck and sobbing into his chest.
"Get off me," Humaid mutters in disgust, trying to disentangle himself. The evening has been nothing like how he expected and he no longer knows what to do. Should he push her to the floor and leave? Wait for her to stop crying and then leave?
"What do we have here?"
The voice is familiar and Humaid is almost too scared to look up. He has had enough drama for one evening. His eyes focus on a pair of sparkly sandals, an abaya hem grazing them gently. With baited breath, he looks up, his eyes moving past the length of the abaya and up to the girl's face. When he sees who it is, all the blood leaves his face. The poor, innocent girl he was thinking about marrying looks at him with undisguised disappointment. Her cousin stands next to her, disapproval etched all over her face.
"You should be ashamed of yourself," Moza says, venom lacing her words. Her phone ready in her hand, she takes a picture of Humaid sitting there with a blonde bundle on his lap. "I'll be sure to show this to Mohamed's father."
"Wait! I didn’t do anything! She just – " Humaid struggles to push Rowdha off his lap, but she clings on even tighter, her body heaving with laughter masquerading as sobs.
"Goodbye," Lady Luxe says softly, before turning on her heels and walking away, Moza close behind her.
"Sharmuta!" Humaid yells, pushing Rowdha off his lap. "Look what you did!"
"What did I do?" she cries in pretend sorrow. "You're the one who's been hounding me for the last two weeks! I didn’t know that you're married."
"I'm not! I was…Oh forget it." Humaid gets up, throws a five-hundred dirham note on the table and walks away without looking back.
Rowdha waits a few minutes until she is sure that he has disappeared from sight, and begins to laugh. Half an hour later, she is joined by the rest of the motley crew - including Jose the Khaneeth and Wafa, the Palestinian 'local' girl. They all laugh together, replaying the evening's events in detail, so enraptured in their own little circle that they fail to notice a guest who, whilst walking past, stops to see where all the laugher is coming from. And when a familiar face registers in his mind, he stops and stares, unsure whether to be pleased at what he has learnt... or enraged.